by Tony Allen
As if the quarter century saga of the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal could get any stranger, enter the story of Pedro Polakoff.
In 1981, Polakoff was a photographer who was just doing his job when he made his way to the scene of Officer Faulkner’s murder in the early hours of a cold December morning.
Today, the pictures he took are central components of the latest propaganda campaign waged by Jamal supporters, chief amongst them is Michael Schiffmann, whose book "Race Against Death. Mumia Abu-Jamal: a Black Revolutionary in White America," contends that Jamal was the victim of a racist frame-up. It is not a new argument, but the pictures used to make the point are new to most people.
Schiffman says that he saw the photos on the internet and made contact with Polakoff. What he does not say is that he first saw them on my website.
Having seen the pictures and the spin Schiffman puts on them, I wanted to talk to the man who was behind the camera way back in 1981.
Thankfully, Mr. Polakoff was generous enough to speak at length with me about his pictures, his interpretation of them, what he knew about that area of Philadelphia at the time, and what he saw and heard during the early morning hours of December 9th, 1981.
There are a couple of things that jumped out at me right away as I spoke with Pedro. The first of which is how adamant he is about his story. The second thing that stood out is just how much Pedro’s story deviates not only from that of the prosecution, but also from the various stories spun by Jamal’s revolving door of defense attorneys over the years.
With that said, I still think Pedro’s story is one worth hearing and writing about. As someone who was at the scene of the crime just minutes after it occurred, his observations should not be dismissed out of hand and deserve to be explored.
Let me get a few things out of the way. Pedro has no discernible political agenda that he wants to espouse. He says he supports the police, but later on in the interview says that he "never had faith in the police of Philadelphia", that he has clear doubts as to the veracity of the judicial system, but has no problem with the death penalty.
Oh, and for two hundred dollars you can look at his pictures of the crime scene.
Until he met Michael Schiffman he believed justice had been served in Faulkner’s case. That is because he believed that Mumia Abu-Jamal was the passenger in Billy Cook’s Volkswagen.
According to Pedro, all of the people he spoke to that night, police included, believed the shooter had been in the passenger seat of Billy Cook’s pulled over car. He claims to have been told by a number of witnesses that Faulkner was shot by the passenger, who had rolled down the window of the passenger side of the VW bug and shot Faulkner in the head, and than rolled out of the car, onto the concrete and than took off running towards the subway. According to these same witnesses, there was another man who was seen crouched in a corner prior to the shooting.
Billy Cook, it was said, never got out of the car until the police removed him and according to Pedro, nobody was talking about Mumia running towards the scene, much less shooting Officer Faulkner, nor was there any mention, according to Pedro, of Jamal being shot.
Pedro arrived at the crime scene around 15 minutes after the shooting, before even the police investigators. He described the situation he observed upon his arrival as a "mess". The scene itself, he claims was compromised before and after it was cordoned off, as various individuals poked around the scene and moved evidence, including Officer Faulkner’s car which was moved by Officers a few feet down the street. Pedro himself, reportedly almost stepped in a pool of blood and told me that "nothing was secured at the scene".
At the scene, Pedro was given complete access to take pictures at the scene, with the police officers asking only that he not take pictures of the deceased Officer Faulkner out of respect, a request that Pedro honored. Aside from that request, he went about his buisness without being hindered in any way from doing his job, and was able to speak freely with the people on the scene, including the Police. One of whom told the photographer that there was a cab driver across the street who had seen the shooting and had identified the shooter.
At some point Pedro became aware of a fracas going on in the police wagon that was parked on the street. He said he heard screaming from the van, but could not discern if anything was being said. Pedro remembers being told that the "guy who shot the cop" was in the van putting up a fight and that the cops were "beating the shit out him". Something that at the time Pedro had no problem with as he had no sympathy for cop-killers. A few minutes later Pedro saw the police van drive off, in no particular hurry, with no lights or sirens blazing.
According to Pedro, 13th and Locust was familiar territory for him. He also makes the claim that it was, along with being a stomping ground for prostitutes, also a known haunt of the Philadelphia mob. He recounted to me seeing one prominent member of Philadelphia’s organized crime community talking it up with a Police Captain at the scene of the crime and he told me that it was well known that the Mob ran a club on that street.
Pedro bristles at the notion that there was damage done to the concrete by shots fired by Jamal. He says that there were no "divots" made in the concrete and when I told him that police investigators did, in fact, make note of such divots, he responded firmly that this was "bullshit". A response from Pedro that I would hear repeatedly as I re-counted trial transcripts to him during our conversation. He also firmly rejects the police contention of bullet strikes at 1234 Locust Street. He says there was no broken glass or any evidence at all of there being any bullet damage done to that door way as police had claimed back in 1982.
In fact, not only is Pedro dismissive of that aspect of the prosecution’s case, but he is dismissive of the ballistics evidence in general. He tells me that it would have been "impossible" for the "Plus P" bullet to have been removed from Faulkner’s skull because of how destructive that kind of bullet is. I ask him how he thinks this fact could have been lost on Jamal’s own ballistics expert and I am told by Pedro that he "hasn’t read much about the case", nor has he read the trial transcripts. But since he has been involved with Michael Schiffman and sold the German author access to his photos, along with producers of a documentary in production about Jamal, Pedro has become certain that Mumia is the victim of an injustice. One that he believes could be mob related.
Schiffman, makes much of the fact that Pedro went on at least two occasions to the District Attorney’s Office with his crime scene photos and was subsequently turned away. What I was surprised to find out was that Pedro had attempted to contact Jamal’s current attorney, Robert Bryan and that Bryan has not returned his calls.
One would think that with all of this hype about "explosive new evidence of how the police framed Mumia", that Bryan would at least have taken an affidavit from Pedro in order to preserve his testimony in legal form, but this has not been the case.
For me, it was interesting to speak with someone who was actually at the scene of the crime that has caused so much controversy and debate over the last quarter of a century. But as I go back through my notes of my conversation with Pedro Polakoff and than compare his perspective with the trial testimony I am left with more questions than answers.
His take on the situation, while certainly favorable for Jamal, also runs counter to much of what has been said in defense of Jamal through the years. Just one example of this is in the affidavits of both Billy Cook and Mumia. If Polakoff is correct, than either Mumia or his brother made erroneous statements in their affidavits as to the events of that awful night. And that is just one example of about a hundred that I could cite.
I am certain about one thing though, and that is the "Mumia wars" will go on for many years to come, this latest episode with the crime scene photos just being the latest chapter of a tragedy that does not seem to have an ending. Those who believe that Jamal was framed will continue to believe this and those who think Jamal a vile cop-killer will continue to push for his execution.
The truth, I am convinced is lodged in the mind of Mumia. It is a truth that we will likely never hear escape his lips.